This National Park Is Basically Joshua Tree Meets the Ocean
Heaven’s entrance fee? $3.
They call it The Cathedral. At The Baths National Park in the British Virgin Islands, it’s also the money shot. Here in this grotto, massive boulders lean into each other, light streaming through their gaps as if from the heavens themselves, saturating the already blue-green waters. Visitors pose under these natural spotlights, swimming out, looking in, whipping their hair (here, it actually looks cool). Flip though Instagram, and this framing dominates.
But in reality, there’s no bad shot in this most unusual and gorgeous park, with its towering granite boulders tumbling into the water, some as big as 40 feet in diameter, formed in slabs when magma pushed its way toward the surface of the Earth and cooled underground (“baths” is short for batholiths). A haven for rock climbers, the boulders pile high above the turquoise water like a half-submerged Joshua Tree National Park, 3,300 miles away in the deserts of California. There’s even cacti: pipe organ—or dildo—cacti line the sandy hiking paths, along with pungent wild sage, jasmine, and fluttering white butterflies.
Take the well-trodden Devil’s Bay Point Trail straight down to Devil’s Bay. At the south end, enter The Baths through a narrow slit, depositing you pretty much at The Cathedral. Or meander down the long way from the top, along sandy beaches (Baths Beach Trail) and spelunking through caves (Caves Trail). Exploring the terrain isn’t strenuous, but in the caves the boulders can get slick and gaps too small for walking upright. Rope handrails, wooden platforms, and ladders help with maneuvering, and water shoes are recommended, as well as a dry bag for any supplies. When you’ve met your exploring quota, take a moment to perfect your hair toss or sunbathe on the powdery white sand.
And get this: It’s just three dollars to enter. If you’re a BVI citizen, it’s free.
THERE ARE ABOUT 60 TROPICAL ISLANDS in the BVI, and of those, just 16 are inhabited. Tortola, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, and Virgin Gorda contain most of the action; the rest range from private isles like Richard Branson’s Necker and Moskito islands and Google co-founder Larry Page’s Eustatia Island to snorkeling hotspots like Salt Island, home to salt ponds and the wreck of the RMS Rhone (featured in the movie The Deep), to uninhabited spits of land best explored on foot. Most of the islands are volcanic in origin, making the terrain hilly, rugged, and lush with vegetation—with the exception of flat and easy-to-identify Anegada (helpful if you’re on a boat). It owes its distinct geology to ancient creatures, aka it’s mostly limestone and coral.
The BVI, along with the US Virgin Islands, are all part of the Virgin Island archipelago, named by Christopher Columbus when he floated up upon them in 1493. He called them Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (“St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins”) and claimed them for Spain. He wasn’t the first human to set foot here, of course: the islands had been inhabited for upwards of 3,000 years, first by the nomadic Ciboney, fish-foragers out of South America; then the Arawak sailors from Venezuela; later, the warlike Caribs took over. After the Spanish arrived, the Indigenous population slowly disappeared. Some surviving pottery and artifacts from the Carib and Arawak can be seen in the Virgin Islands Folk Museum in Tortola.
And though the BVI is technically United Kingdom territory, it shares much more in common with its US counterpart and nearby Puerto Rico. Beyond similar climate and food staples, its currency is the US dollar.
Within those 60 or so islands in the BVI, there are 20 national parks. They include places like the 800-acre RMS Rhone Marine Park, which also covers Dead Chest Island—lore says Blackbeard abandoned 15 of his crew here after a mutiny, leaving them nothing but a bottle of rum (and inspiring the pirates' song "fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” fromTreasure Island). Sage Mountain National Park, on Tortola, features the highest point in all the Virgin Islands (1,716 ft), and the J. R. O'Neal Botanic Gardens, in the heart of Tortola’s Road Town, claims a turtle colony, a plethora of palms, and a gazebo of orchids. There’s also Prickly Pear National Park, 243 acres with salt ponds, hiking trails, and bird sanctuaries, and Copper Mine Park, with the ruins of a copper mine, built by Cornish miners in the 19th century.
The seven acres that comprise The Baths gained their status in 1990. The protected area also includes the aforementioned horseshoe-shaped Devil’s Bay and nearby Spring Bay, with see-it-to-believe-it turquoise waters and powdery sand, which attracts sunbathers in droves. In addition to the trail, it's also accessible by anchoring your dinghy at an offshore dock line. (If you’re coming by boat, it’s also worth visiting nearby Fallen and Broken Jerusalem islands for the similar scenery—with a fraction of the tourists.)
You’ll find both The Baths and Devil’s Bay on the south end of Virgin Gorda, the third-largest island in the BVI. Those familiar with Spanish will know that the name means “fat virgin,” named by Columbus. It seems he surveyed the 8.5 square miles of palm trees, beautiful lush peaks, ancient boulders, unspoiled beaches, and blooming vegetation and said, “You know what that looks like? A fat lady lying down.”
But back to this century. Come on a weekday, right when the park opens, to avoid the cruise-ship crowds. Stop for coffee at Top of the Baths, a restaurant with panoramic views, plus shops, a pool, and above-average Caribbean-fusion fare right off the main parking lot. Bring cash, as beachside at The Baths you’ll also find Poor Man’s Bar, a painted-green wooden hut serving up sandwiches, Jell-O shots, beach rental chairs, and cocktails. Order a Painkiller, a rum-orange-pineapple-coconut cousin of the piña colada, invented in 1971 by Daphne Henderson at BVI’s famed Soggy Dollar beach bar (so named because you typically have to swim to it, rendering your dollars…soggy). There’s said to be three versions corresponding to two, three, or four ounces of rum. Most tourists will only be aware of—and most bars will only serve them—the two-ounce version. The brave ones will always ask for more.